Getting back to the basics

I took a psychology elective in college. One of the topics was Maslow’s Need Hierarchy. Abraham Maslow was 33 in 1941 and hence ineligible to fight in World War2. However the horrors of that war led him to believe humanity could only be saved by emulating highly developed “self-actualized” individuals. He modeled this on his own mentors noted anthropologist Ruth Benedict and psychologist Max Wertheimer.


Abraham Maslow

Maslow considered such people to be at the very apex of human development where they led fulfilling lives realising the full extent of their human potential. In 1943, he published a paper in Psychological Review. Maslow considered that people had a hierarchy of needs from the physiological to the intellectual. Once the lower order needs were satisfied, a person could move up to higher levels of development.


Maslow’s Need Hierarchy

Physiological Needs: Air, water, food

Safety Needs: Physical security, financial security, health

Love/Belonging Needs: Family, friendship

Esteem: This occurs in 2 forms, lower (esteem from other people), higher (self-respect)

Self-actualization: the desire to achieve one’s full potential

At an abstract level it sounds logical, a person gasping for air is unlikely to worry about retirement planning or what his friends think of him. Likewise, previously decent people have been driven to steal, lie and cheat due to abject poverty.

Even so, it is easy to find fault with this hierarchy. The first one that occurred to me even during the college lectures was of Gandhi. Here was a man who was achieving something akin to self-actualization and for the sake of which he was willing to deprive himself of his basic physiological needs. It was as if there was a level beyond everything Maslow had talked about where all this didn’t seem to matter. It is worth noting that in later years, Maslow criticized his own narrow vision of self-actualization. And considered the idea of self-transcendence where a person gives him/herself over to a goal greater than themselves like altruism and spirituality.

The concept of such a hierarchy seems to suggest that someone who is trapped at a lower level is unlikely to appreciate experiences of a higher nature. However, we have testimonies of inmates of Nazi concentration camps who cried at the beauty of a sunset. Nobody can claim their safety needs were remotely satisfied but they could still if only for a few moments move themselves beyond their condition to appreciate beauty where they saw it.If you’ve seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, you may remember the scene where inmates from a maximum security prison are better able to appreciate the sound of music than any critic.

Also, so many of the most esteemed people seemed to have only acquired the esteem because of their relentless pursuit of their self-actualization (pick your favorite artist, entrepreneur or scientist).

Finally, consider the abnormal cases. The miser who cares for nothing and no one as much as his money. The bully boss who humiliates subordinates because he can do so. The hoarder, the internet troll, the boaster all seem to be  cases of arrested development where someone seems to be stuck at a certain level and unable to move forward.

In the years since, I have been struck not by the several documented exceptions to the rule but by how often it seems true. When confronted with layoffs in the company, all chatter about family plans and friendly outings cease as a level 2 need is swept away.

I would go further, I feel these needs are not just true at an individual level but at a social level. Whole societies can be stuck at one level for so long that behaviors characteristic to that level can seep into the culture.

There is a story told by Lee Kuan Yew the former Singaporean leader of his visit to England in the after math of World War2. There he saw a newspaper stall at the side of a street. Nobody was tending to it. People just came up, took a paper and deposited the price in an uncovered tray. Yew thought the English were a truly civilized people.

However, one could also argue that even after the horror of the Blitz, British traditions and conventions remained for some time what they had been. These customs were a products of a stable and prosperous society where people’s basic needs were satisfied and values like self respect were important for people.

I still remember my first trip to the United States in 2007, where I saw more courtesy on the road than I had ever seen in India. In many places in India, I am shocked by the extent to which greed and envy are ingrained to the extent where people are unable to differentiate between them and healthy ambition.

My aunt who once worked for a charity was horrified at the family life of some of the people who came from war torn countries. In many cases, the children didn’t hesitate to use violence on their own family members including their own parent.To use force just seemed natural to them.

Gandhi considered poverty to be a form of violence, and there is little doubt in my mind that a lot of what we call Indian culture is the result of prolonged exposure to poverty or the threat of poverty. Could a society deprived of its needs collectively lapse into a more brutal culture? Conversely how long would it take for such a culture to recover or elevate itself?




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